It Takes a Village

Allison Welch
Preserve Grayson members monitoring water quality

Bepe had just moved into her home in Grayson County, VA, when she heard helicopters overhead. Small droplets were falling from these helicopters onto Bepe and her property. She would come to learn that the liquids dousing her house regularly were pesticides meant for the nearby Christmas tree farms. These tree farms were recent additions to the Grayson County landscape, and they were quickly changing the entire ecosystem.

Bepe, also a recent addition to Grayson County, thought she could create a more positive kind of change. As she got to know her new neighbors, she met one who shared her environmental concerns and told her about a new group that was forming. Bepe joined the fledgling organization, which became known as Preserve Grayson.

Preserve Grayson is a community-run, grassroots organization formed to respond to the massive and rapid expansion of industrial-scale agriculture in Grayson County, Virginia, particularly being seen in the production of Christmas trees. The organization works tirelessly to increase community and public awareness about large-scale agriculture and to support changes in state regulations that protect the ecosystem in Grayson County and beyond.

The expanding tree farms were causing erosion in local streams, and the pesticides meant to protect the trees from insects were instead killing surrounding native flora and fauna. Many residents were suffering from cancer and believed it was caused by the pesticide exposure. Extensive research backs the connection between pesticide exposure and cancer. (For example, see this study from the National Institutes of Health: Bassil, K L et al. “Cancer health effects of pesticides: systematic review.” Canadian family physician Medecin de famille canadien vol. 53,10 (2007): 1704-11.)

After studying existing legislation and meeting with legislators regularly, the Preserve Grayson team realized that Virginia did not have laws sufficient to protect people from the harmful effects of tree farms. A Grayson Preserve member thought about the problem and came up with a new strategy. “So many groups learn that it’s very difficult to protect the environment,” she observed, “but we still have the Clean Water Act.” If the Preserve Grayson team could prove that the Christmas tree farms were causing water quality degradation, they might be able to fight for change using the Clean Water Act. The team decided they were going to get their hands wet and use Virginia Save Our Streams (VA SOS) to show that the large-scale Christmas tree farms were polluting streams and waterways.

VA SOS is an Izaak Walton League program that helps volunteers sample aquatic macroinvertebrates, the bugs that live in streams, to determine how polluted waterways are. Volunteers identify and count these bugs, and the ratio of pollution-tolerant to pollution-sensitive bugs converts to an ecosystem score that indicates whether water quality in the stream is acceptable, unacceptable, or in a “gray zone.” Data collected through VA SOS produces a tangible number that the Preserve Grayson team could use to prove diminished water quality.

After going through the Izaak Walton League’s training program and becoming certified water quality monitors, Bepe and others began testing streams in their community. They noticed there is a correlation between the quality of the stream and the amount of buffer space between the stream and the tree farms: streams that are farther away from tree farms have clean water.

Preserve Grayson has also been sampling local wells for nitrate, a chemical commonly found in fertilizers, and they have noticed that nitrate levels have been climbing in tandem with tree farm expansion. The organization is fueled by the changing landscapes and will continue to monitor into the future for data that will capture quality change over time.

The Preserve Grayson team works hard to turn their monitoring data into effective advocacy. On the legislative side, Preserve Grayson members have met with congressfolk and county officials. They regularly attend board of supervisor meetings and use their allotted time to educate local leaders about environmental problems. And they helped welcome a bill into committee that would increase transparency when spraying pesticides. Bepe also helps spread the word through the community by sending newsletter blasts, obtaining testing kits and hosting events.

The team’s goal is to change minds and help fellow county residents understand the impact these tree farms are having on their ecosystems and their health. Many in the community are worried about the consequences of fighting against these large-scale farms. Bepe understands that fear, but she moves forward with calm courage. “You have to stand up to the bully,” she says, “and I am not afraid.”

Get involved with Save Our Streams

Top photo: Members of Preserve Grayson monitor water quality in a local stream.

Newsletter Sign Up